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BOOK REVIEW:

King of the blues : the rise and reign of B.B. King

In this extensively researched biography, which involved interviews with family, band members, other musicians, friends, managers and others, Daniel De Visé has written a biography about one of the all-time great musicians, B.B. King. It is more than a biography of one man, his art and his calling, it is a presentation of times, places, and ways of living, many that still exist in this country, which were integral to forming King's life. In meticulous detail De Visé documents the early, disjointed life of King’s childhood and young adulthood, beginning with a genealogy of King’s family, going back to his father, Albert King, who was born in 1907. “The King family crisscrossed Mississippi in a perennial search for farm work … Events tore Albert’s family asunder.” This would be a pattern of life for generations of former slaves and their descendants, searching for work, (hard farm work, under dreadful conditions that would not enable them to financially advance or pull themselves out from under someone else's control) and resulting events (illness, death, material loss of home and belongings) that would tear families apart. It was rare to find cohesive, stable units of family and friends who could help financially and emotionally.  What De Visé brilliantly achieves in charting the life of the King family are the effects of slavery, legally abolished but defacto not abolished. There was a multilayered economic and social system that had existed and was still in place. African American people were existing to exist, to find work to keep on working. Within this history De Visé weaves facts about African music that were the roots of what became known as The Blues, other forms of African American music, and widely fluential in many types of American music.

As for B.B. King's connection to music, it was providential that people entered the young boy’s life and sparked something that was latently there, a talent for music that became the passionate linchpin in his life. ”His first guitar was probably a diddley bow, a single-stringed concoction that a penniless sharecropper could fashion from flotsam … A diddley bow was a length of wire stretched right between two nails hammered into a board. The wire might come from the head of a broom. Folklorist Alan Lomax believed the diddley bow was descended from the ancient African mouth bow … Lomax believed the diddley bow … traveled with slaves to the United States and served as ‘a crucial step in the birth of the blues.’”

Recurrent facets in King's life were women, loneliness, hard grueling work, persistence against great odds in every part of his life, lack of formal musical training, and the foundational consequences of racism. Throughout his life he suffered physical and emotional effects from serendipitous physical injuries that had taken place in his youth. De Visé charts all of it, the ups and downs, the wranglings with managers and promoters, the road trips, the performances, King’s intuitive connection with audiences, and the historical influence and legacy that his work has had on younger musicians, who were drawn to his distinctive playing, singing and creating. B.B. King died in 2015, 89 years old, and his musical legacy is as solid as ever. The thrill is far from gone, certainly not for this fan, and others, it is more intricately radiant having understood where the greatness came from.

 

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